I have a vivid memory of taking my kids to a state park when they were younger and watching them climb on rock formations in a dry creek bed. I had a hard time watching them because I kept worrying that they would fall. They weren’t doing anything particularly dangerous, but eventually, I had to stop watching them, because I didn’t want to transmit my own anxiety to them.
A new paper in the January 2020 edition of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by Mirjam Gassemi, Katharina Bernecker, and Veronika Brandstatter suggests this reaction is typical.
In a series of studies, they found that people tend to worry more about the actions of significant others in their lives than their own actions or the actions of people they are not that close to.
In one study, participants read scenarios involving common low-risk behaviors like flying on a low-budget airline. Participants were assigned to one of three sets of instructions. In one condition, they rated their anxiety about the risk for themselves and whether they think they should take that risk. In a second condition, participants did these ratings for their romantic partner (all participants had to be in a long-term committed relationship). In a third condition, participants made these ratings for someone they know but are not that close to.
Participants were more anxious about their partner taking these risks than either themselves or a socially distant individual. They also were less likely to want their partner to engage in this behavior than themselves.
Several studies replicated this finding and extended it. One demonstrated that partners had more anxiety about their partners than themselves even when they were engaging in the behavior together. Another study had participants list the consequences of engaging in this dangerous activity. Participants listed more severe consequences when listing them for a significant other than for themselves. Statistical analysis suggested that this difference in severity accounted for part of the difference in anxiety people experience for themselves versus significant others.
One other study found that this pattern held not just for significant others. Participants selected either someone very close to them, someone moderately close to them or someone distant to them to rate (and a control condition rated the risks for themselves). Participants’ anxiety about risks was lowest for themselves and for socially distant people. Their anxiety was higher for people moderately close to them and the highest for people very close to them.
In a final study, participants made ratings of real events rather than hypothetical ones. Participants were recruited as couples. Each filled out a diary study in which they rated their anxiety about long drives either they took or that their partner took. They filled out this questionnaire at least once a week for eight weeks.
As in previous studies, participants were less anxious about long drives they took than drives their partner took. This effect was also influenced by how close participants were feeling to their partner that day. So, they experienced more anxiety for long drives when they felt closer to their partner than when they felt more distant from their partner.
There are two interesting aspects of these studies. First, the finding appears to be pretty solid. Several studies all demonstrated the same pattern that people are more anxious about risks taken by a significant other than by themselves. However, it is not completely clear why this happens. It is influenced partly by people imagining worse outcomes for other people than for themselves. It may also have to do with a feeling that you cannot control the behavior of others, though a few studies in this series looked at that possibility with mixed results. More work needs to be done to understand why people worry more about the people close to them than they do about themselves.
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Ghassemi, M., Bernecker, K., & Brandstatter, V. (2020). "Take care honey!": People are more anxious about their significant others' risk behavior than about their own. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 86, 103879.